Forest Gate's proud suffragette legacy

Friday, 6 March 2015


The East End was a centre of radical political and trade union activity in the 1880's - most famously for the Matchgirls' Strike, in Bow in 1888 and the historic Dockers' Strike of 1889. What is, perhaps, less well known is that the area became one of the earliest centres agitating for votes for women, around the same time.

The Women's Suffrage Society held meetings at Stratford Town Hall in the late 1880s, one being reported in the Stratford Express in 1887. Some of the women involved then, and a little later,  were to play prominent roles in Women's and wider politics in Newham over the next half century - notably Rebecca Cheetham.
She was the first warden of the Canning Town's Women's Settlement, 1892 - 1917 (whose own history is closely related to that of Durning Hall - see last week's post). She became a co-opted member of West Ham Council's Education Committee, from its inception in 1903, until her death in 1939, and person after whom the eponymous nursery in Stratford is named.


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Rebecca Cheetham, Newham
 Suffragette and educational reformer
Another prominent figure, though less well-remembered today, was Minnie Baldock, who played a significant role in Forest Gate's suffragette story - see below for a brief biography.

Minnie Baldock, 1908
Together with local MP, Kier Hardie, Minnie held a public meeting in 1903, to complain about low pay for women in the Canning Town area. She was also involved in the West Ham Unemployed Fund and in 1905 became an Independent Labour Party candidate in the election for the West Ham Board of Guardians (the body that oversaw the local administration of the Poor Law and workhouse, and whose elections were open to female voters). She joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) later that year and became active in heckling prominent political figures in public meeting halls across London.

On 26 January 1906, Minnie Baldock established a branch of the WSPU (known commonly as the Suffragettes) in Canning Town, in an attempt to recruit working class members to the cause. By September that year, open-air Suffragette public meetings were being held in Upton Park (see extract form Stratford Express, 28 Sept 1906).

Stratford Express,
29 September 1906

There was soon a branch of the WSPU in Forest Gate, as the extract from the Stratford Express of 25 January 1908, below, suggests. The writing may not be very distinct in the cutting reproduced, but the contents are clear - the WSPU was up, running and strong in Forest Gate in 1908. It says:

Votes for Women


Stratford Express, 25 January 1908
On Friday, at 102 Clova Road, Forest Gate, Mrs Pethwick- Lawrence (another person with Durning Hall connections), hon. treasurer of the National Women's Social and Political Union addressed a meeting of local ladies (some forty persons)on the subject of "Women's enfranchisement" giving the reasons leading her, with so many others, to advance the cause.

Special emphasis was placed on the matter of female labour and on its successful entry into so many vocations, yet commanding scarce more than two thirds remuneration of that given to men and on the fact of women who having to support themselves by their own labour, finding themselves face to face with the trade union organisations working for the reservation of the labour market wherever possible for the male sex.

The result of Mrs Lawrence's eloquent address was a considerable addition to the local union, recently started, and which is organising an energetic campaign in the immediate constituencies".

A small, but fascinating article, which makes uncomfortable reading about the sexist historical nature of many trade unions, and how much (or little?) things have changed in over a century, in the struggle for equal pay in the workforce.

102 Clova Road is a modest, middle class, house, which recent photo below, suggests was a rather small place in which to accommodate a meeting of 40 people, even in 1908. The adjacent property (104) - also shown below - is a much larger one. Could there have been an error in the Stratford Express account, in describing the exact location of the meeting, one wonders?

102 Clova Road, today -
scene of  January 1908 meeting
104 Clova Road - a far larger property - more likely to have been able to accommodate 40 people, at a meeting






In an unpublished PhD thesis for the University of Greenwich, Diana Elisabeth Banks-Convey states that Minnie Baldock became a paid organiser for the Forest Gate branch of the WSPU - although, unfortunately does not source this statement, as she writes:

Despite this new organisation, with its links with working class women in West Ham, the WSPU maintained its branches in both Forest Gate in the north and Canning Town in the south. ... However, Minnie Baldock, despite being a leading light in South West Ham Labour, joined the Forest Gate organisation and was a paid organiser for them, speaking at many meetings throughout the East End.
We have discovered a lengthier Stratford Express account of another WSPU meeting held in Forest Gate, later that year(17 October 1908), reproduced below. This seems to have been a well-attended, determined, session, painting a very vivid picture of the struggles that suffragettes faced in attempting to win the vote, over a century ago.
It provides a salutary local lesson for those people who say they can't be bothered to vote in the forthcoming general election, of the hardships endured by our foremothers (?), to establish that very right, today.

Enthusiastic meeting at Forest Gate

Stratford Express,
 19 October 1908
Artist's impression of Earlham Hall,
Earlham Grove, in 1897,
 while under construction

Organised by the Forest Gate branch of the National Women's Social and Political Union, a meeting was held in Earlham Hall on Monday evening. There was a good attendance of members. A few men occupied seats at the rear of the hall. Mrs Sleight presided, supported by members of various local surrounding branches.

Miss Hewitt, hon. treasurer of the branch referred to the promised demonstration at the House of Commons on Tuesday by Suffragettes. She stated that a demonstration was going to the Prime Minister to ask that a Bill for Women's Suffrage might become law without any further delay. They had no reason to think that the delegation would have any better reception than previous demonstrations had had.
  
Referring to the "courageous women" who would certainly be arrested and sent to prison for the parts they would take in the affair, the speaker said that it was impossible for them all to be arrested, but it was as great a punishment almost for them not to go to prison as it was for the leaders who suffered that indignity. She knew, of course, that on Wednesday they would hear it stated that by their conduct they had put back their cause forty years, and also that they had made other women ashamed of their sisters; but it was their duty to try and show people that it was a difficult business, and that they were prepared to pay any harsh penalty to secure the enfranchisement of women (Hear, hear).

They would hear that women were ashamed of their womanhood and of their sex, but they wanted to make women admire the courage and ability of their leaders, who were prepared to face ridicule and imprisonment for their great ideal. At present they were practically outlaws in a free country. They would stand hand in hand, in spite of the ridicule of the world (Applause). ...
Before the conclusion of the meeting a messenger arrived to say that warrant officers were waiting outside for Mrs Pankhurst and others, who had failed to appear at Bow  Street Police Court in answer to summonses that afternoon. It was discovered, however, that they had not come to arrest the women, but to tell them that they must appear the next afternoon. The charge against them was that of inciting a riot.

Miss Friedlander went on to say that by this means the Government thought they were going to stop them, but they were mistaken, for arrangements had been made for the work to be carried on by able lieutenants during the temporary absence of their leaders. (Applause)

Mrs Sleight said that mounted dragoons and warrant officers had no terrors for them. Men must feel proud that their wives, sisters and sweethearts would willingly suffer for their rights. ...Miss Hewitt invited the men present to ask questions, but received no response.

Miss Flowers, speaking of what they were prepared to do for the sake of the cause, said : "Think what it means to be dragged through the streets like criminals, and before hostile and unsympathetic men" (This remark was greeted with loud laughter by the men present.)

Replying to a question, Miss Hewitt said she did not expect that the enfranchisement of women would create a paradise or Utopia, but without the vote, they could do nothing. (Applause).

Mr John Gordon sang a solo and a collection was held.
On that stirring note, we are sad to report that we have no further information on the activities of the Forest Gate branch of the WSPU (but would love to hear from anyone who has). We do, however, have more on the Minnie Baldock story.
Below we offer a pen portrait, from the available material, of this one-time paid organiser of the Forest Gate branch of the WSPU.

Minnie Baldock, a brief biography

Minnie Baldock, c 1909
Born in Poplar in about 1864, as a girl, Minnie worked in a shirt factory and married Harry Baldock, around 1890. The couple had two sons, Jack and Harry. They lived together at 23 Oak Crescent Canning Town, at the time of the 1891 census, both described as general labourers, with their 10 month old son, Harry (see extract, below). The house no longer exists, and the site today is a green open space, near the Canning Town fly-over (see photo, below).


1891 census entry for the
 Baldocks  - Oak Crescent,
 Canning Town
          Oak Crescent, today



Minnie became a member of the recently formed Independent Labour Party (ILP) in the 1890s, and Harry - from 1901 until 1907 - was an ILP councillor for the Tidal Basin ward of West Ham Council.
The family does not seem to appear locally, in the 1901 census.

In 1903, along with her local MP, Kier Hardie, Minnie organised a public meeting to complain about low pay for women in the area. She was involved in the administration of the West Ham Unemployed Fund. In 1905 she became the ILP candidate in the election for the West Ham Board of Guardians.

As mentioned above, she joined the WSPU in 1905, and was soon very active, within it, heckling prominent politicians (like prime minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman)and demonstrating outside their houses, in central London.

It is probable that she was part of the group, including socialist activists, Kier Hardie, George Lansbury, Julia Scurr and Dora Montefoire, that organised a march of 1,000 women from the East End to Westminster, to lobby for welfare assistance for the unemployed in 1906.

Minnie Baldock, left - handing out Suffragette
 leaflets in Nottingham, 1907
In November of that year another march took place, when 4,000 women from West Ham, Poplar and Southwark marched down Whitehall, bearing banners with messages such as 'Work for our men', 'Food for our children' and 'Workers of the world unite', accompanied by a band playing The Marseillaise.

When the working class, Lancashire-born, and later prominent Suffragette, Annie Kenney moved to London, in 1906, she stayed, at the recommendation of fellow socialists, with Minnie Baldock in Eclipse Street in Canning Town. Minnie had local contacts gained from her actions, above, and, through her husband, Harry, with various local trade union branches. She helped Annie make connections in the area and assisted in finding speaking engagements for her.

In 1906 Minnie, together with Annie Kenney,  was instrumental in establishing a branch of the WSPU on her home patch, of Canning Town.  The pair met frequently with Sylvia Pankhurst, who was extremely active in Bow and introduced a young local cigarette factory worker, Daisy Parsons, to the movement. Daisy would later be part of the East London Suffrage Movement's 1914 deputation to meet the prime minister, Asquith. In 1936, she became West Ham's first female mayor.
Daisy Parsons, far left, on Suffragette
 deputation to Downing Street,
 February 1914

Minnie, herself,  soon became a full-time organiser for the WSPU, for Forest Gate (see above), and toured the country addressing meetings.
She was arrested in a demonstration outside the House of Commons in February 1908 (see video clip, below) and sentenced to a month in Holloway prison. The Daily Mirror described her involvement thus:

Mrs Baldock drove round with a megaphone and shouted 'Votes for Women' as far up the stairs of St Stephen's entrance as the megaphones could send the words. Other women with megaphones drove past in cabs shouting their battle cry.
Much of our information about Minnie comes from a small article about her, published in Votes for Women, on 18 June 1908. It reads:

Mrs Baldock, as a working woman, knows the difficulties and sorrows of their lives, and has now given up all work to fight for political power. She brings to her work the experience gained as a Poor Law Guardian and by work in the Independent Labour Party, on Distress Committees etc. Mrs Baldock was one of the first militant suffragettes in London, heckling Mr Asquith at his Queen's Hall meeting in December 1905, and holding up the banner at the Albert Hall. In October 1906 and again in February 1908, she suffered imprisonment for her enthusiasm.
In February 1909 Minnie was heavily involved in a recruiting and propaganda campaign for the WSPU in the West Country.
The Baldock family lived at 490 Barking Road, Plaistow at the time of the 1911 census, though Minnie was not present on the night of the count - presumably campaigning elsewhere in the country. Harry snr. was described as a driller/hole cutter in the shipbuilding industry, and the two sons were also employed in that industry, in that census.

490 Barking Road, today

1911 census, Baldocks (minus Minnie)
 at 490 Barking Road 
























Minnie became seriously ill with cancer in late 1911, and was operated on in the New Hospital for Women (now the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, Bloomsbury). She went to Brighton, for a while for recuperation, and never returned to work with the WSPU.
It has been speculated that she disapproved of the increasingly militant tactics being adopted by the organisation (e.g. arson) , because continued to hold membership of the Church League for Women's Suffrage.

In January 1913, Minnie and Harry snr moved to Southampton. In her later years, she lived in Hamworthy, near Poole, where she died aged about 90, in 1954.

Screengrab from YouTube clip of
Votes For Women,
which can be accessed here
In 2011 Poole museum, and National Lottery funded commissioned a short film celebrating the life of Minnie Baldock, The Right to Vote. It was written by Kate O'Malley and starred Michelle O'Brien. You can access it via the hyperlink in the caption to the screengrab, above.



3 comments:


  1. I'm trying to research old 'Granny Baldock' for whom my mother worked as a young girl when she lived in Hamworthy. Minnie Baldock lived across the street from us when she was old and we were afraid of her because she wore long black dresses and we thought she was a witch. It was my mother who told us that she had been a suffragette when she was a younger woman. Now that I'm older too, I'm so pleased that I knew her despite the fact that as a kid I went scrumping on her property.

    I'm wondering if she sold the land to the Labor Club or they were sponsoring her to live at 73 Rockley Road where the Labour Club was built. I just cannot remember when it was built; do you know? I have googled several things and found tons of fascinating stuff about Minnie. Thank you so much for writing about this amazing woman.

    Jean Bodie

    ReplyDelete
  2. John Walker09:51




    Sorry, Jean, I know nothing of Minnie after she left the East End, other than she ended up in the Poole area. I know Poole museum and their local paper took some interest in her, in her later life. They may be your best bet for finding out, or for them to ask around, locally.
    Perhaps other readers can help.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hello E7 Now & Then Team! I am Feeling rather proud today having just read on your website about the Suffragette connection to where I born and raised: Forest Gate,E7. I moved to Hertfordshire over two years ago now and have recently been involved with the Hertfordshire Hidden Heroines Project/Film & Theatre Show celebrating the Women of Herts. and have learned a lot more about The Suffragette and Activist: Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton of Knebworth House and since then I have always felt that there must be a link somewhere to these women where I grew up, so I was really pleased and it was good to see and read this article about the history esp. as I was never taught about these ‘local’ Ladies in my Convent School History Lessons. Debra

    ReplyDelete

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